Scorchers, Part 1: Tools and Burn Rate

Jason Sachs April 12, 20164 comments

This is a short article about one aspect of purchasing, for engineers.

I had an engineering manager once — I’ll leave his real name out of it, but let’s call him Barney — who had a catchy response to the question “Can I buy XYZ?”, where XYZ was some piece of test equipment, like an oscilloscope or multimeter. Barney said, “Get what you need, need what you get.” We used purchase orders, which when I started in 1996 were these quaint forms on...

Padé Delay is Okay Today

Jason Sachs March 1, 20164 comments

This article is going to be somewhat different in that I’m not really writing it for the typical embedded systems engineer. Rather it’s kind of a specialized topic, so don’t be surprised if you get bored and move on to something else. That’s fine by me.

Anyway, let’s just jump ahead to the punchline. Here’s a numerical simulation of a step response to a \( p=126, q=130 \) Padé approximation of a time delay:

Impressed? Maybe you should be. This...

Margin Call: Fermi Problems, Highway Horrors, Black Swans, and Why You Should Worry About When You Should Worry

Jason Sachs December 6, 20151 comment

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

Today’s topic is engineering margin.

XKCD had a what-if column involving Fermi...

Ten Little Algorithms, Part 5: Quadratic Extremum Interpolation and Chandrupatla's Method

Jason Sachs November 11, 20153 comments

Other articles in this series:

Today we will be drifting back into the topic of numerical methods, and look at an algorithm that takes in a series of discretely-sampled data points, and estimates the maximum value of the waveform they were sampled from. This algorithm uses quadratic interpolation, which has applications in the topic of...

The Dilemma of Unwritten Requirements

Jason Sachs October 25, 20151 comment

You will probably hear the word “requirements” at least 793 times in your engineering career, mostly in the context of how important it is, in any project, to agree upon clear requirements before committing to (and hastily proceeding towards) a deadline. Some of those times you may actually follow that advice. Other times it’s just talk, like how you should “wear sunscreen when spending time outdoors” and “eat a diet low in saturated fats and...

Trust, but Verify: Examining the Output of an Embedded Compiler

Jason Sachs September 27, 2015

I work with motor control firmware on the Microchip dsPIC33 series of microcontrollers. The vast majority of that firmware is written in C, with only a few percent in assembly. And I got to thinking recently: I programmed in C and C++ on an Intel PC from roughly 1991 to 2009. But I don’t remember ever working with x86 assembly code. Not once. Not even reading it. Which seems odd. I do that all the time with embedded firmware. And I think you should too. Before I say why, here are...

How to Read a Power MOSFET Datasheet

Jason Sachs September 15, 20158 comments

One of my pet peeves is when my fellow engineers misinterpret component datasheets. This happened a few times recently in separate instances, all involving power MOSFETs. So it’s time for me to get on my soapbox. Listen up!

I was going to post an article on how to read component datasheets in general. But MOSFETs are a good place to start, and are a little more specific. I’m not the first person to write something about how to read datasheets; here are some other good...

Lessons Learned from Embedded Code Reviews (Including Some Surprises)

Jason Sachs August 16, 20151 comment

My software team recently finished a round of code reviews for some of our motor controller code. I learned a lot from the experience, most notably why you would want to have code reviews in the first place.

My background is originally from the medical device industry. In the United States, software in medical devices gets a lot of scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, and for good reason; it’s a place for complexity to hide latent bugs. (Can you say “

Ten Little Algorithms, Part 4: Topological Sort

Jason Sachs July 5, 20151 comment

Other articles in this series:

Today we’re going to take a break from my usual focus on signal processing or numerical algorithms, and focus on a type of algorithm that, although rarely present inside embedded systems, is indispensable for developing them. In fact, you’ll get two algorithms today for the price of...

Oh Robot My Robot

Jason Sachs June 26, 2015

Oh Robot! My Robot! You’ve broken off your nose! Your head is spinning round and round, your eye no longer glows, Each program after program tapped your golden memory, You used to have 12K, now there is none that I can see,  Under smoldering antennae,   Over long forgotten feet,    My sister used your last part:      The chip she tried to eat.

Oh Robot, My Robot, the remote controls—they call, The call—for...

My Love-Hate Relationship with Stack Overflow: Arthur S., Arthur T., and the Soup Nazi

Jason Sachs February 15, 201548 comments

Warning: In the interest of maintaining a coherent stream of consciousness, I’m lowering the setting on my profanity filter for this post. Just wanted to let you know ahead of time.

I’ve been a user of Stack Overflow since December of 2008. And I say “user” both in the software sense, and in the drug-addict sense. I’m Jason S, user #44330, and I’m a programming addict. (Hi, Jason S.) The Gravatar, in case you were wondering, is a screen...

Chebyshev Approximation and How It Can Help You Save Money, Win Friends, and Influence People

Jason Sachs September 30, 201217 comments

Well... maybe that's a stretch. I don't think I can recommend anything to help you win friends. Not my forte.

But I am going to try to convince you why you should know about Chebyshev approximation, which is a technique for figuring out how you can come as close as possible to computing the result of a mathematical function, with a minimal amount of design effort and CPU power. Let's explore two use cases:

  • Amy has a low-power 8-bit microcontroller and needs to compute \( \sqrt{x} \)...

10 Software Tools You Should Know

Jason Sachs May 20, 201215 comments

Unless you're designing small analog electronic circuits, it's pretty hard these days to get things done in embedded systems design without the help of computers. I thought I'd share a list of software tools that help me get my job done. Most of these are free or inexpensive. Most of them are also for working with software. If you never have to design, read, or edit any software, then you're one of a few people that won't benefit from reading this. 

Disclaimer: the "best" software...

Adventures in Signal Processing with Python

Jason Sachs June 23, 20138 comments

Author’s note: This article was originally called Adventures in Signal Processing with Python (MATLAB? We don’t need no stinkin' MATLAB!) — the allusion to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has been removed, in deference to being a good neighbor to The MathWorks. While I don’t make it a secret of my dislike of many aspects of MATLAB — which I mention later in this article — I do hope they can improve their software and reduce the price. Please note this...

How to Estimate Encoder Velocity Without Making Stupid Mistakes: Part I

Jason Sachs December 27, 201226 comments

Here's a common problem: you have a quadrature encoder to measure the angular position of a motor, and you want to know both the position and the velocity. How do you do it? Some people do it poorly -- this article is how not to be one of them.

Well, first we need to get position. Quadrature encoders are incremental encoders, meaning they can only measure relative changes in position. They produce a pair of pulse trains, commonly called A and B, that look like...

Thermistor signal conditioning: Dos and Don'ts, Tips and Tricks

Jason Sachs June 16, 20119 comments

In an earlier blog entry,  I mentioned this circuit for thermistor signal conditioning:

It is worth a little more explanation on thermistor signal conditioning; it's something that's often done poorly, whereas it's among the easiest applications for signal conditioning.

The basic premise here is that there are two resistors in a voltage divider: Rth is the thermistor, and Rref is a reference resistor. Here Rref is either R3 alone, or R3 || R4, depending on the gain...

Ten Little Algorithms, Part 2: The Single-Pole Low-Pass Filter

Jason Sachs April 27, 201512 comments

Other articles in this series:

I’m writing this article in a room with a bunch of other people talking, and while sometimes I wish they would just SHUT UP, it would be better if I could just filter everything out. Filtering is one of those things that comes up a lot in signal processing. It’s either ridiculously easy, or...

Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part I: Idempotence

Jason Sachs August 26, 20144 comments

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of subtle concepts that contribute to high quality software design. Many of them are well-known, and can be found in books or the Internet. I’m going to highlight a few of the ones I think are important and often overlooked.

But first let’s start with a short diversion. I’m going to make a bold statement: unless you’re a novice, there’s at least one thing in computer programming about which you’ve picked up...

Ten Little Algorithms, Part 1: Russian Peasant Multiplication

Jason Sachs March 22, 20155 comments

This blog needs some short posts to balance out the long ones, so I thought I’d cover some of the algorithms I’ve used over the years. Like the Euclidean algorithm and Extended Euclidean algorithm and Newton’s method — except those you should know already, and if not, you should be locked in a room until you do. Someday one of them may save your life. Well, you never know.

Other articles in this series:

  • Part 1:

10 Circuit Components You Should Know

Jason Sachs November 28, 20111 comment

Chefs have their miscellaneous ingredients, like condensed milk, cream of tartar, and xanthan gum. As engineers, we too have quite our pick of circuits, and a good circuit designer should know what's out there. Not just the bread and butter ingredients like resistors, capacitors, op-amps, and comparators, but the miscellaneous "gadget" components as well.

Here are ten circuit components you may not have heard of, but which are occasionally quite useful.

1. Multifunction gate (